Monday, May 16, 2011

From the Field by Fred

Fred Hang is a senior training instructor for the Great Books Foundation. His missives from the field will draw from his considerable expertise in the Shared Inquiry™ method of learning and his work in thousands of classrooms.

“Why do you teach?” This is the question I typically ask participants when I begin my Great Books professional development courses. After the teachers introduce themselves, I try to discover what first led them to teaching and what keeps them returning to the classroom.

The answers I hear most often include: “I enjoy kids.” “I like to see the light bulb go on.” “I had a teacher who impacted me when I was in school and I want to do the same.” “It is never boring.” “It forces me to keep on learning.” “It’s fun.” “I want to make an impact on the future.” “It is so satisfying to see a student grow and develop.” “It’s a mission, a calling—I can’t imagine doing anything else.” (It is funny how rarely “salary” comes up as an answer!)

I continue to be impressed by the level of commitment and passion teachers bring to their work. However, with all of the regulations, local and national standards, and other requirements that teachers must adhere to (not to mention the bureaucratic hoops they must often jump through), it amazes me that they get any genuine teaching done.

By genuine teaching I mean those times when the teachers and students become one in the search for meaning and understanding—when the teacher’s questions do not have a correct answer in a teacher’s guide or in the back of her mind, and when the goal is not to teach to the next test or to have students correctly guess the “right” answer. These are moments of true “shared inquiry.”

There will always be a great deal that teachers must pass on to their students, facts and information that they need to know. Teaching our students what to think is a vital part of an educator’s role. However, today more than ever it is also essential to include ample opportunities to teach them how to think. It is a sad fact that many students are not taught how to think until they get to late middle school or high school—and sometimes even to college. By this time some very bad habits of thought have been ingrained.

Teachers who have been trained in and regularly use the Shared Inquiry method of learning have told me time and again that it not only revitalizes their teaching but reconnects them with why they chose teaching in the first place. They tell me that there is a lot less empty talk and more thought going on in their classrooms. They know this because discussions are marked with moments of silent reflection as well as outbursts of passionate opinion. Students speak directly to one another instead of reporting their idea only to the teacher. Answers are supported with evidence from the text, not worded to please the teacher. As one teacher put it, “Shared Inquiry wakes up our minds in the morning and keeps us alert to each other all day.”

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